The short stories of author Shirley Jackson frequently kick you in the gut. The current presentations of Jackson's The Summer People and The Lottery at Scott Community College frequently tickle your ribs.
This isn't, however, meant disparagingly. At their best, director Steve Flanigin's one-acts provide the giggly rush you get not from reading Jackson's tales, but from reading them again, after you know exactly what chilling twists lie ahead and are free to relish their misleadingly banal setups; the fun here doesn't lie in the horror so much as the hints of horror.
And the fun in the evening's first offering, The Summer People, also stems from the semi-guilty thrill in watching the show's wealthy, arrogant vacationers getting just what they (sort of) deserve. Adapted by Brainerd Duffield, the 40-minute piece opens with New Yorkers Robert (Cody Tucker) and Janet (Chasity Foster) heading to their seasonal getaway cottage in New England, where the unsmiling locals greet them with reasonable courtesy ... though, from the outset, we have no idea why. Robert seems too vague and distracted to be much bother, but Janet is spectacularly condescending - she speaks to shopkeeper Tilda (Sarah Murphy) as though the woman was both foreign and deaf, even though she appears to be neither - and her girlish pluck and backhanded, probably unconscious, rudeness feel like direct assaults on the townsfolk's stoicism. (Robert eventually reveals his true colors when he makes a crack about local inbreeding.)
Trouble comes when Robert and Janet choose to stay at the cottage beyond Labor Day, but what follows doesn't have a lot of surprise even if you aren't acquainted with Jackson's story: neighbors grow threatening; supplies become limited; phone lines are cut. Yet there's still entertainment to be had in both The Summer People's script - amusingly, the couple appears just as unwanted in New York as in New England - and its performance. Flanigin does particularly fine work with the prelude, which effectively establishes mood (through its creepy musical underscoring) and the production's deliberate artificiality by having actors position stage pieces in full view of the audience. And while it's always a bit awkward to watch performers miming the opening and closing of doors, the convention is at least pulled off well; aided by Shannanh Johnson's lighting design, locales are created, and settings change, with minimal fuss.
There isn't as much suspense as you might want, due in part to the script's scene-capping, momentum-halting blackouts, and the climax feels rushed, as if Duffield knew that we knew how it all ends, and was eager to wrap things up ASAP. But there's a good aural jolt at the start of Scene Three and plenty of evocative lines, and the leads pull off the tricky task of emerging as both hateful and likable; on Friday, Tucker had a playfully unexpected moment when he dangled an envelope over his wife's head, and the inventive Foster displayed terrific acting instincts throughout.
The Summer People is minor Jackson, but still enjoyable; major Jackson was saved for The Lottery, and the second half of the evening's bill was even more enjoyable than its first. (Although "second half" is really overstating it; the one-act clocks in at a breezy 20 minutes.) If, like many of us, you still shudder remembering your first reading of the author's classic - or the horrific 1969 short film it inspired - you'll be pleased to know that this adaptation, also by Duffield, is just as simple, suggestive, and disturbing as the story itself, and the production's director acts accordingly. As Jackson's Midwesterners gather to see which unlucky family will wind up ensuring a successful harvest, Flanigin maintains a tone of easygoing friendliness - only interrupted by Cari Anne Cooney's impressive fury as town heretic Belva Summers - and paces the action beautifully; the occasionally overlapping dialogue is handled with true finesse. (On Friday, only a few awkward silences, as actors either dropped lines or momentarily forgot them, impeded the rhythm.)
With Caitlin Herrera, Joe Sager, Patrick Joslyn, Cody Tucker (again), Sara Bolet, and others offering nicely unforced portrayals - and with a powerfully adorable tyke on-hand in young Skyler Voss - The Lottery is a respectful and more-than-respectable treatment of Jackson's chiller, rife with anticipatory chuckles. (Sager's chipper greeting to the assembled townspeople is hilariously, frighteningly genial.) And while the piece's climax is appropriately unnerving, the most terrifying moment in the whole of Scott Community College's Jackson two-fer is one you actually won't find in Jackson. I don't know if the idea was Duffield's or was added by Flanigin to cover not having more children on-stage, but at one point Joslyn's Bill Hutchinson mentions another son, Bill Jr., "who died when he was a baby," and the unspoken suggestion of how the infant might've died is about as monstrous a sick joke as could be imagined. Jackson would've been proud.
The Summer People and The Lottery are being performed in Scott Community College's Student Life Center, located through Door 5, off Parking Lot D. For information, call (563) 441-4339.